White, sandy beaches are what most people think about when they dream of Southern California. It’s true for a majority of the coast, but Laguna Beach is the exception in Orange County: an anomalous chunk of craggy, tree-covered rock, running down to the sea in ridges and valleys, creating a varied shoreline of coves, points and beaches large and small, separated by rocky cliffs.
Take a bird’s-eye view of Laguna Beach on Google Earth and it’s easy to understand why it’s a haven for watersport enthusiasts. Out to sea, all that rock is the foundation for a habitat strewn with reefs that create ideal waves for surfing. It’s also a kelpy home for numerous sea creatures—lobster to Garibaldi to sea lions and more—which are fascinating to see whether stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking or surfing above, or scuba and snorkeling below.
Enthusiasts of all skill levels can enjoy that aquatic action with tips from the locals who know it best.
Snorkeling and Scuba
Laguna Beach is like a giant aquarium. The rocky reefs are a solid foundation for kelp, eelgrass and other seaweed, which provides a healthy, protective habitat for a long list of pinnipeds, fish and crustaceans. With such an abundance of flourishing marine life, it’s not surprising that so many are inspired to dive in and see it for themselves.
“From Crescent north to Treasure Island south, Laguna has some of the best beach diving in all of California,” says Tom Gorman III, one of the founding members of local dive club Laguna Sea Dwellers. “And Laguna is the scuba divers paradise for training and recreational diving.”
Whether you’re casually snorkeling off the beach or doing boat dives a couple hundred yards out at sea, the corrugated shoreline of Laguna Beach has dozens of spots for checking out the undersea world. “Divers Cove was once the most popular cove for divers to dive and be trained out of, but I feel Shaw’s Cove has taken its place,” Tom says. “Since Shaw’s is a south-facing beach/cove, it is more protected during the year from the storms from the north and west. There are steps down to the beach, but Shaw’s has one of the best beach entries of all the coves in Laguna. Many other divers may say their cove is better, but most of the training today is out of Shaw’s Cove.”
Beginners: Smooth Snorkeling
Difficulty level (1-5): 2
If you can swim, you can snorkel. And with calm seas and the right equipment, you don’t even need to be able to swim well to enjoy this sport. Dive fins are made long and strong and give you mermaid power when cruising the kelp—great in the ocean, but awkward on the beach. One trick: When wearing fins, walk backward so there’s nothing in the way, but always look over your shoulder. But the best way to put on fins is carry them into the water and slip them over your feet while while you’re floating.
Extremists: Diving Deep
Difficulty level (1-5): 5
How long can you hold your breath? Scuba’s extreme cousin, free diving, offers the underwater experience minus the equipment. Some professionals can stay under for more than 10 minutes and dive as deep as 500 feet on a single breath. Assuming you’re not a pro, locate a comfortably deep spot and see how far down you can go, and for how long, staying within your limits. Free divers experience feelings of euphoria from redistributed oxygen. But remember one of the most important rules of any kind of diving: never do it alone.
Stand-up paddleboarding is one of the more recent watersport sensations. Some prefer it to kayaking, noting that the upright position is more comfortable, exercises the legs and allows the paddler to see what lurks beneath.
Steve Owen of SUP to You explains why Laguna Beach is well-suited for SUP: “First off, all the waves break right on the sand, so you just need to get past the first set, and then you’re golden with all open ocean. Because of our many reefs throughout our coastline, with many that are close to shore, there are many areas that are easy to launch to get in and out of the sets. With all the reefs and shallow waters, it makes epic viewing of sea life, whales, dolphins, bat rays, leopard sharks and all types of fish.”
Laguna is good for beginners to experts, whether launching off the beach and noodling around close to shore, or getting ambitious and seeing as much of the area as possible.
“North Laguna is the most popular section to paddle, as it has many close-to-shore reefs, for easy launching of your SUP,” Steve says.
Billy Fried of La Vida Laguna agrees that north Laguna is the place to go, recommending Shaw’s Cove in the Crescent Bay area, specifically. “It’s adjacent to Seal Rock, home of a sea lion colony,” he says.
Beginners: Zen on the Water
Difficulty level (1-5): 3
SUP yoga takes an art that is thousands of years old to a new level. Those who love the traditional practice may enjoy it that much more when they paddle out into the open ocean and breathe in the fresh, salty air. The muscles being strengthened and stretched are even further tested by the moving platform. “The north cove areas from Heisler Park to Crescent Bay are the most popular for SUP yoga,” says Erin O’Malley, owner and lead SUP instructor at Sunset Stand Up Paddle.
Extremists: Need for Speed
Difficulty level (1-5): 5
Downwinding is fast, furious and challenging—and a lot of fun. Paddle a specialized board long distances with the wind at your back and move with the swell as those ocean forces go with you. The prevailing gust blows from the northwest, so you can leave one vehicle at Aliso Beach Park or Monarch Beach and take another car back up to Main Beach; launch there and go like the dickens for 6 or 8 miles south. Some downwinders will enjoy hugging the landline and checking in at all the pocket beaches.
The Beach Boys didn’t mention Laguna when they rang off surf spots in “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and that’s a shame. The town is known for some of the most legendary surfing destinations in Orange County and it’s home to the Brooks Street Surfing Classic, billed as the longest-running surf competition in the world. Because of the corrugated coastline with many reefs set off by sandy beaches, Laguna offers a banquet of raging waves for boarders. Year-round, but especially when the south swells are running, you’ll catch them surfing Laguna’s designated surf spots, including beaches at Thalia and Brooks streets, among other areas.
Much of Laguna Beach’s surf is not ideal for beginners, as it breaks hard on the beach or out on rocky reefs. Some spots, like Main Beach, are easily accessible (but note that surfing is not permitted there during the summer months), while others are hidden away and more private.
In addition to the varied environments, the areas offer different experiences. The waves at Brooks Street and Rockpile break out to sea on kelp-covered reefs, but those at Thousand Steps and Victoria Beach wedge off the rocky cliffs and slam onto sandy beaches (perfect for bodyboarders, skimboarders and bodysurfers).
Beginners: Lose the Board
Difficulty level (1-5): 2
Laguna Beach isn’t always ideal for beginners. Bodysurfing is a good introduction to riding waves and requires less equipment. All you need is trunks, fins and guts. There are spots that break directly on the beach, and others that wedge off cliffs and rocks, creating waves that have a wall and can be ridden for quite a ways. Victoria Beach offers great surf for the sport, as does Thousand Steps and many other pocket beaches along Laguna’s coastline. While it’s easier than surfing, the activity can still be dangerous—always, always protect your head with your arms and never go alone.
Extremists: South Swell Madness
Difficulty level (1-5): 5
The dormant reefs of Laguna Beach light up on big south swells that are spawned by hurricanes off the coast of Baja, Mexico, or giant storms in the ocean, which send energy radiating across the Pacific from below New Zealand. When these big “chubascos” and “southern hemis” hit, local spots like Rockpile and Brooks Street become especially challenging and fun for advanced surfers.
The same elements that make Laguna Beach great for snorkeling, scuba and SUP create an ideal environment for kayaking. On calm days, it’s a lot of fun to travel above water, checking out caves, beaches and all the flora and fauna. “There is something to say about how easy it is to go long distance on a kayak for first-time paddlers,” says Scott Yoast of La Vida Laguna, drawing comparisons between SUP and kayaking. “A second advantage to kayaks [are] how they handle less ideal water conditions than a SUP can tolerate.”
Billy claims to be “paddle agnostic,” meaning he likes to do both, but agrees with Scott on the advantages of kayaking. “Kayaking allows for more distance for beginners, more comfort for some and less chance of falling in. It’s great for families, as small children and elderly can participate. … With kayaks, it’s easier to carry camping or other gear, food, water, camera, et cetera.”
As far as best spots for kayaking in town, that’s up to personal preference. Crescent Bay has good access when the surf is small, and you can see sea lions at Seal Rock, about 120 yards offshore (but avoid getting too close). From there, you can explore the coast. Some kayakers take a picnic lunch, snorkel gear and suntan lotion to enjoy time on a secluded sliver of beach.
Beginners: Safe Start
Difficulty level (1-5):
The starting point plays a major role in making this sport simple or strenuous. Billy Fried notes that La Vida Laguna considers that when taking groups out on guided tours. “We launch from a wave protected beach in north Laguna that makes it easy to launch and land,” he explains. “Once outside the surf zone, paddling is no different than a pond or lake, except for the epic views, amazing marine life and briny ocean fragrance.”
Extremists: Weather and Waves
Difficulty level (1-5):
Weather and water conditions play a major role when kayaking Laguna Beach—just getting a kayak off the beach in big surf is a dangerous challenge. Also paddling in hard northwest daily winds, or southeast ones during a storm, could be considered extreme. But if the strong Santa Ana winds start blowing, get to shore ASAP or you could end up much farther out than intended.
—Written by Benjamin Marcus